Martin Luther King Jr. and the Unfinished Work of Abolishing Poverty

Martin Luther King Jr. and the Unfinished Work of Abolishing Poverty

Martin Luther King Jr. and the Unfinished Work of Abolishing Poverty

Democrats failed to embrace his Freedom Budget for All Americans in the 1960s. That failure needs to be addressed today with a bold program to abolish poverty and injustice.


The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. warned in an essay written shortly before his assassination on April 4, 1968, that turbulence and mounting anxiety in a profoundly unequal and deeply divided country could lead to a circumstance where “we’ll end up with a kind of rightwing take-over in the cities and a Fascist development, which will be terribly injurious to the whole nation.”

To address the crisis, Dr. King declared, “We need an economic bill of rights. This would guarantee a job to all people who want to work and are able to work. It would also guarantee an income for all who are not able to work. Some people are too young, some are too old, some are physically disabled, and yet in order to live, they need income.”

The Nobel Peace Prize winner, who that spring was organizing a Poor People’s Campaign to advance that agenda, outlined a program for investment in housing and education. And at a time of mass protests against the Vietnam War, King used his 1968 essay to denounce “a tragic mix-up in priorities” that saw the United states “spending all of this money for death and destruction, and not nearly enough money for life and constructive development.”

This is the message from King that is vital to remember today, as we recall the life and legacy of a proudly militant advocate for racial, social, and economic justice. For King and his great ally, A. Philip Randolph (the labor leader who led the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters), the years after the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom were devoted to promoting the full agenda of the march and the movement.

The organizers kept the pressure up for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, both of which were signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson. But they did not stop there. They continued to make demands. Along with other key figures from the March on Washington such as the brilliant organizer Bayard Rustin, labor allies, and top economists, they returned to the White House in 1965 and 1966 to outline a “Freedom Budget For All Americans,” which sought these results over ten years:

  1. To provide full employment for all who are willing and able to work, including those who need education or training to make them willing and able.
  2. To assure decent and adequate wages to all who work.
  3. To assure a decent living standard to those who cannot or should not work.
  4. To wipe out slum ghettos and provide decent homes for all Americans.
  5. To provide decent medical care and adequate educational opportunities to all Americans, at a cost they can afford.
  6. To purify our air and water and develop our transportation and natural resources on a scale suitable to our growing needs.
  7. To unite sustained full employment with sustained full production and high economic growth.

The Freedom Budget was a visionary document that declared, in Randolph’s words, that “we meet on a common ground of determination that in this, the richest and most productive society ever known to man, the scourge of poverty can and must be abolished—not in some distant future, not in this generation, but in the next ten years!”

The Freedom Budget’s language and ambitions anticipated the messages of today that echo in the halls of Congress in speeches by California Representative Barbara Lee, New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar, and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, as well as from the pulpit of the Rev. William Barber II.

It is good to acknowledge just how visionary King, Randolph, and Rustin were. But it is necessary, as well, to acknowledge how frustrating it is that the work the 1960s remains unfinished in the 2020s.

Amid the wreckage of the fight for President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, it is vital to understand that there was nothing particularly radical about the plan, which West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin and other so-called “centrist” Democrats derailed. It was a modest investment in the agenda that King argued was necessary to avert the societal divisions, violence, and fascist threats that were on the minds of the civil rights leader more than 50 years ago—and that are on the minds of conscientious Americans today.

Democrats had power in the mid-1960s—control of the White House and both chambers of the Congress—but they failed to realize the full promise of King’s stirring plea in his March on Washington address: “to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”

King’s language was poetic, yet he spoke to the need for a practical agenda. In his forward to the Freedom Budget, King made a political argument for a multiracial, multiethnic movement to end poverty based on the budget’s agenda.

The long journey ahead requires that we emphasize the needs of all America’s poor, for there is no way merely to find work, or adequate housing, or quality-integrated schools for Negroes alone. We shall eliminate slums for Negroes when we destroy ghettos and build new cities for all. We shall eliminate unemployment for Negroes when we demand full and fair employment for all. We shall produce an educated and skilled Negro mass when we achieve a twentieth century educational system for all.

The essential argument was that housing, health care, and education needed to be understood and advanced as human rights. “This human rights emphasis is an integral part of the Freedom Budget,” wrote King, who argued that it “sets, I believe, a new and creative tone for the great challenge we yet face.”

There are those who call today for dialing back on the bold agendas outlined by the president and progressive congressional leaders, including Senator Sanders, who played a critical role in the development of the Build Back Better agenda. They dismiss talk of abolishing poverty as fiscally unrealistic and utopian. But the Democratic lawmakers and pundits who are pushing for a more cautious and piecemeal approach would do well to consider King’s counsel.

“It is not enough to project the Freedom Budget. We must dedicate ourselves to the legislative task to see that it is immediately and fully achieved,” he warned in 1966. “The Freedom Budget is essential if the Negro people are to make further progress. It is essential if we are to maintain social peace. It is a political necessity.”

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